At nine, I was already one of the tallest kids in 4th grade — you can always find me in my tortoise-shell cat glasses in the last row of class pictures — and I must have had one of, if not the, biggest pairs of feet among the girls.
I can’t recall the size cutoff in the girls’ shoe department but my mother must have known I was already pushing it. I suppose hope sprung eternal in her, too.
My mom loved to shop, and she imparted that love in me from an early age. Back when I was a girl in suburban St. Louis, some of our best days involved wandering the racks and doing our version of “the ladies who lunch.” Fortified, we would set out on our quest once again. But nothing could prepare me for that fateful day in 1970 in the girls’ department at Stix, Baer & Fuller.
I had gathered the cute styles all my friends were wearing, handed them to the salesman and sat patiently with my mom until he came back with a stack of boxes, making my heart leap. I was like Cinderella, waiting for my perfect pairs to materialize, but I couldn’t shove my rapidly expanding feet into any of them. As I grew more and more frustrated, my failed Prince Charming finally intoned, “I’m sorry, we have nothing in your size.”The lowest blow was having feet bigger than the men in my life. I was no delicate flower.
Nothing in my size? I was a 4th-grader in the girl’s shoe department, damn it! How could this be? I couldn’t stop the flow of tears rolling down my cheeks. My mother did her best first to console me, then tried to turn my frown upside down by joking that I could always wear shoeboxes home. Not funny, Mom!
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, the salesman made another announcement: “Ma’am, the women’s shoe department is over there,” gesturing with a wide sweep of his arm to our immediate right. And so, my flat-footed, tear-stained, size 10 self marched over to that dreaded area of the store, where I stared at the sensible pumps worn by my teachers and sobbed yet again. All I wanted was what the rest of the kids were wearing, and it wasn’t to be. And so my lifelong lust for shoes began.
Throughout junior high and into college, I made do mostly with men’s styles; it was fairly easy to “pass” with Jack Purcell’s and those fuggly Earth Shoes. Luckily for me, this was the unisex era in which girls dressed like boys, and my “look” became all about jeans and tees. But when it came time for sorority formals, I had to scramble. By then, I was an 11; I would squeeze into whatever heeled sandals I could find, uncomfortable as they might be.
I’d grown sick of my big old feet. I’m 5’6, so it isn’t like I’m some towering model whose height accounts for her shoe size. I could only watch as my friends squealed over their purchases; it didn’t matter to me if they were shopping at Saks or Payless, I was the sad kid with her face pressed up against the glass at the candy store. I gazed with envy at my friend Betsy’s rows of gorgeous stilettos, despite the fact that I knew she’d had to have foot surgery because of them. But the lowest blow was having feet bigger than the men in my life. I was no delicate flower.
I had to wait for shoe nirvana until my first job out of college. I was working at a paper in Greeley, Colorado, when I visited a friend in New York and discovered a store that catered to women with big feet; I’m sure they had a nicer way of putting it, but it was what it was. Elated to have found my tribe–I had graduated to a size 12–I bought seven pairs. Included in the mix were some sweet, hot-pink, pointy-toed flats, which turned out to be a perfect match for one of my favorite dresses, and kicky short tan cowboy boots, both of which I wore till I ground holes in the soles.
Once I moved to New York, my shoes jones grew even more fervid. But the frustration continued; while stores were increasingly carrying 11s, acknowledging more and more women’s larger footprints, they weren’t stocking 12s. It also didn’t help that my flat feet meant most things gapped, and my bad back ruled out even the tiniest kitten heels. I was resigned to a life in men’s Brooks.
But just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, the bottom really fell out in my 30s. My new mom habit of wearing flip-flops and Uggs had allowed my feet to swell from a 12M to a 12W, which limited my choices even further. And then one day at Marmi’s, my new store of choice on Madison Avenue, I received more dreaded news: I was a size 13. A 13, I tell you! It felt like I was that traumatized 9-year-old in the girls’ shoe department all over again.
Then I discovered the Delman sample sales, where I competed against 6-foot Czech models for the sumptuous deals. (Trust me, those 13s went fast.) Once again, I was buying as many pairs as I could find, including some beautiful, completely impractical brocade ballerinas and elegant woven leather pointy-toed flats, both of which I meant to stretch but never did. (Both ended up in the consignment shop, where they sold quickly.) Sadly, those sales dried up.
Luckily for me, I’m now able to take full advantage of the wonders of online shopping, with Nordstrom and Zappos as my go-to sites. The beauty of free shipping and returns with a generous in-home tryout period is not lost on this feets-too-big gal.
But my latest moment of glory happened just the other day. After an oh-so-pleasant dental cleaning, I decided to reward myself by popping into Marmi’s. Not that I’d found anything since snagging a hot pair of black size 13 boots two years earlier, but you never know. And there, I discovered the secret to my shoe success: Van Eli’s Purple Collection. Not only are they tailored yet slightly funky, they’re comfortable as all hell, made with a slight raised arch for support and buttery soft suede.
The icing on the cake came when my ace saleswoman and new best friend Deborah informed me that I’m actually a “petite” (it’s all relative) size 12M, at least in this line. It was like finally finding the right bra size! And so it was with great glee that I left Marmi’s the other day with not one, not two, but three pairs of great–albeit pricey–shoes, including a pair Deborah was wearing and swearing by in her own size 6. When my new fairy godmother handed me her card, she promised to “fix me up” anytime I need something special.
Deborah is now on speed dial.